Sep 16, 2010

Desi Anwar: Burning Questions

Terry Jones, a pastor who leads a congregation of 30 people in Florida, wanted to burn the Muslim holy book because he thinks Islam is evil.

Personally, I couldn’t care less what Jones gets up to. The world is full of weird people who do weird things, but life is too short to waste time on the antics of a few sick individuals seeking attention.
My concern, however, is the media’s reaction to the case. Is Jones really worthy of the endless airtime and pages devoted to him? Is airing the hateful words of a lone, obscure pastor with a tiny following what constitutes good journalism?

As the pressure mounted to call off his plan — including public condemnation from the US secretary of state and the president himself — Jones, probably gratified by such a high level of attention, had second thoughts.

The global sigh of relief was nearly audible. The only ones who were disappointed seemed to be the journalists camped in the heat outside his church demanding to know if there was going to be a Koran burning or not.

Because if there was, they were sure as hell ready to cover the event live and to broadcast it around the world.

It was a good thing that the pastor was made to come to his senses.

After all, if a cartoon poking fun at the Prophet Muhammad published by an obscure Danish magazine managed to provoke angry reactions on the other side of the world, it is not difficult to imagine what the Koran being burned live on global television would incite.

It’s not a question of freedom of expression that is at stake. We are all entitled to our own opinions and feelings.

Rather, it’s how we should deal with these kinds of ideas and whether they are newsworthy information fit for the global media. The pastor hates Islam, and that is within his right.

I’m sure a lot of people do. But hate is not news, unless hate itself is something we want to peddle for sensation and ratings.

For the media to elevate some obscure nobody into a figure of importance — in whose hands rests the delicate balance of global peace — smacks of naivete, if not cynicism.

The best thing that can be done to someone like Jones is to ignore him into insignificance and not play into the hands of what terrorists throughout time have always done, which is to seek attention and sympathy for their cause.

Otherwise, the world will forever be held hostage to the likes of Jones, people who relish the idea of having those in power at their beck and call.

The solution to this is simple ­— don’t send a camera crew to give these people the attention they seek.

Cover something else, such as the work being done by the Jewish widows Susan Retik and Patti Quigley, whose husbands died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and who, rather than nurse a lifetime of grief and hatred, built an organization to help educate thousands of Afghan widows and war victims. Now that is newsworthy.

The other thing that upset me about this whole business is how President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono went out of his way to contact US President Barack Obama and weigh in on the issue.

This was not only unnecessary (the United States is quite capable of handling a potentially explosive problem), but also risible coming from someone who’s been conspicuously silent on his own country’s problem of simmering religious intolerance, leaving it instead to the people to fight it out for themselves.

The attack on a Christian pastor on Sunday was a natural consequence of a festering problem that the state has not been willing to resolve — the protection of minorities and the practice of pluralism as the country’s basic principle.

Obama and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg have stood firm in the face of opposition to an Islamic center near Ground Zero because they know that on basic and fundamental issues of tolerance and religious rights, noble values must prevail over baser and reactive human emotions.

They are risking their popularity and political capital in the name of what is good for the entire country, because although this might not be what politicians do, it is certainly what good leaders should do.

Obama is sticking his neck out to protect Muslims in America. Where is Yudhoyono’s effort to protect Christians in Indonesia? His pusillanimity has only escalated the problem.

The government needs to understand that when it comes to matters of religion and minority rights, even in democracies, it should not be left for the majority’s overriding sentiment to decide, but for the state to protect.

For it is in a country’s ability to protect its minorities that the integrity and legitimacy of the government lies.

Desi Anwar is a senior anchor and writer. She can be contacted at and

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